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A U.S. Scientist Finds Glasnost in Boondocks : Environment: American ecologists join Soviets in the Oka Biosphere Reserve, to measure natural species and explore human global concerns.

November 19, 1989|David M. Graber | David M. Graber is a research scientist at Sequoia National Park

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, CALIF. — Among the many tales of glasnost is one about four U.S. and 17 Soviet scientists doing three weeks of old-fashioned biological fieldwork in the Russian backwoods. It's a story set amid mud and mosquitoes, the clash of American versus European ecological thinking and the gratifying discovery that the joy of working with nature--the passion for saving it from humankind's toxic foolhardiness--is a cultural common ground perhaps more potent than nationality.

Officially, this was Project 02.05-41: Biosphere Reserves. For 15 years, the two governments have been signatories to an agreement promoting mutual development of environmental monitoring and protection schemes in their respective nature preserves. Like many--maybe most--such international agreements, "progress" had been marked by alternate visits of officials--tours, toasts and occasionally productive conversation. The fortunes of working scientists on both sides rose and fell with the political climate. These days that climate, like the meteorological one, is warming markedly.

Last May, meeting first in Idaho Falls and continuing in the River of No Return Wilderness, we finally found the political and scientific common ground to work together. There would be joint work on monitoring--specifically to track and measure pollutants in air and water. That is a relatively straightforward business where Americans have held the high ground in science and technology. And we would seek standards for describing and monitoring "biological diversity." This 1980s catch phrase for the extinction of species and the loss of whole ecosystems goes to the heart of the science of ecology. It is an arena where European--and Russian--ecologists have marched to different tempos than Americans, and one where the Soviets are far better apprised of our work than we of theirs.

But before we embark on our scientific expedition to the Oka Biosphere Reserve, a digression: For two decades, the U.N.'s Man and the Biosphere program has attempted to foster more harmonious relations between people and the natural world. Its International Biosphere Reserve designation seeks to link fully protected "core" areas with adjacent lands where agriculture, forestry or grazing may be taking place.

The selection of biosphere reserves was intended to cover the spectrum of ecosystems planetwide, from tundra to tropical rain forest--although politics has had a certain moderating effect on the character of the network. Ecological lessons learned in core areas are to be applied to improve management in occupied terrain, as well as to provide a protective buffer for natural areas. Some of the world's finest natural preserves have been designated Biosphere Reserves and, within them, a great proportion of global effort toward conservation has been focused.

In America, most of the dedicated reserves have been national parks. With a few notable exceptions, such as southern Appalachia, little effort has been made to reach beyond the core parks to surrounding buffer areas. And only quite recently has the biosphere designation produced much more in the parks than a brass plaque. The difficulty stems from the very character of U.S. national parks. The National Park Service Act of 1916 was a mandate "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Nature lovers soon learned that providing enjoyment and leaving resources unimpaired is an oxymoron.

The Soviet Union has largely avoided this problem because "parks" are designed for recreation, although typically in rustic surroundings. A special nature reserve designation, zapovednik , was established more than 50 years ago; these are entirely closed and protected except for approved scientific investigation. Most Biosphere Reserves in the Soviet Union are zapovedniks. In the United States, the reserve designation has most often been bestowed upon relatively unmodified "wilderness" parks that form the "crown jewels" of our system, where we have been able to imagine that "wild nature" still functions. In the Soviet Union, nearly all landscapes have been occupied, modified and remodified by people for centuries--"wilderness" is a peculiarly American abstraction.

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